Oct. 12, 2012


 
NORMAN, Okla. --
When talking about his men's basketball team, University of Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger frequently uses the word "passion."

Visit with him for a few minutes and it's clear that Kruger has a tremendous love for the game and a deep desire for his program to succeed. But the energy and enthusiasm on display each day at Lloyd Noble Center are not limited to him.

The second-year OU coach and his staff have instilled in their players a high-level work ethic and a blue-collar mentality that has resulted in a focused and dedicated group that has been readying itself for the 2012-13 season for the last half year.

"The attitude of this team has been terrific," Kruger said, "as good as any we've been around in 30 years in regards to genuinely embracing the preparation throughout the spring, summer and fall.

"This group has done just a terrific job of getting ready for the upcoming season. They've worked hard and have been self-starters. And the player leadership has been outstanding. We have a lot of guys who are genuinely invested in and enjoy the preparation part of it, which is a good first step to having as good a team as possible."

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That's just one of the reasons why the Sooners appear destined to snap a three-year streak of no postseason play. Of course, having talented and experienced players also aids the process. The Sooners appear fine in that regard, as well, with the return of their top six scorers from last year, including all five starters. OU welcomes back 88 percent of its scoring, 81 percent of its rebounding and 78 percent of its assists from last year's 15-16 squad (5-13 Big 12).

Add to the mix Preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Amath M'Baye and four other quality newcomers who are expected to see ample playing time and the immediate future looks extremely promising.

In addition to a coaching staff and a group of players who possess a deep passion for basketball, the Sooners are also a group with a firm team-first mindset. No one person puts himself ahead of the program.

Kruger says three players in particular have embraced the role of leader since last season ended. Seniors Andrew Fitzgerald and Romero Osby, and junior M'Baye have led verbally and by example.

"Leaders on any team have to be genuine in their work ethic and in their interest for the team over any individual stuff," Kruger began. "Those three guys have given that from day one. The other guys on the team respect how hard they work and their sincerity, and how that impacts the big picture and the overall success of the squad."

Kruger enters the season just six wins shy of his 500th victory as a collegiate head coach. While he won't be bringing a new style of basketball to Lloyd Noble Center, he says fans can expect better execution of what was introduced last season.

Kruger wants to push the ball offensively and pressure it defensively. The Sooners' attempts a year ago weren't always successful. Now, progress is obvious.

"We are a deeper and more talented group this year and we'll be more capable of doing what we tried to do last year," Kruger said. "Our depth will be much better. More guys will be able to step on the floor and impact the game both offensively and defensively -- especially the older guys. They're all a year better, a year stronger and a year more aware and experienced.

"That's the biggest difference between this year and last year -- the experience and the understanding of what it takes. Everyone knows what challenges lie ahead and how difficult they are. There's an eagerness to genuinely embrace those. That will help a lot."

Big 12's leading returning scorer Steven Pledger

BACKCOURT
Steven Pledger (6-4, 219, Sr., Guard)
Sam Grooms (6-1, 203, Sr., Guard)
Cameron Clark (6-6, 208, Jr., Guard)
James Fraschilla (5-10, 150, So., Guard)
Jarrod Kruger (6-1, 181, So., Guard)
Buddy Hield (6-3, 199, Fr., Guard)
Isaiah Cousins (6-3, 182, Fr., Guard)
Je'lon Hornbeak (6-3, 180, Fr., Guard)

The Sooners' backcourt will feature a combination of experience and youth, with three returning starters and three freshman guards who figure to play prominent roles right from the start.

Heading the guard charge will be Steven Pledger, the Big 12's leading returning scorer. The 6-4, 219-pound senior earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year after averaging 16.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists in a team-high 32.9 minutes a game. He started each of his 30 games as a junior and shot career highs of .459 from the field and .416 from 3-point range. He ranked fourth in the Big 12 in 3-point field goal percentage and treys per game (2.4), and sixth in scoring, field goal percentage and free throw percentage (.833).

Pledger, who already stands in sixth place in school history with 178 3-pointers (the record is 259) and 34th with 1,022 points, has topped the 30-point mark three times over the past two years. He plans to finish his career with a bang.

"Steven's a terrific shooter, probably as good of a shooter as there is in the Big 12," Kruger said. "He shot it well last year and I think he'll have a very good senior year. He'll also rebound the ball well for us and has a good feel defensively."

Sam Grooms, a starter in all 31 games last year in his first season in Norman, returns at point guard. The 6-1, 203-pound senior averaged 6.7 points, a team-high 6.0 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 31.5 minutes per game. His 185 assists ranked second among Big 12 players while his 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio paced the league and ranked eighth nationally.

Grooms, who shot just .350 from the field and .200 from 3-point range, spent a good chunk of the offseason working to improve his jumper.

"Sam did a very good job taking care of the ball last year, getting it where it needed to go," Kruger said. "I think he'll continue to get experience at the point guard spot and will be invaluable going into the season."

Junior Cameron Clark returns on the wing after starting in 28 of 31 games last season and all 32 games the year before. Standing at 6-6 and weighing 208 pounds, Clark averaged 8.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 27.2 minutes a contest last season. Kruger expects Clark, who worked to retool his jumpshot in the summer, to make a big impact on both ends of the court.

"Cameron has the ability to not only score, but rebound the ball very aggressively and be an outstanding defender. We have to work on consistently bringing that to the court every day, and he has been doing that this fall."

Also returning at guard are sophomore walk-ons James Fraschilla and Jarrod Kruger. Fraschilla is a 5-10, 150-pounder who played in 10 games last season, totaling 12 minutes and three points. The 6-1, 181 Kruger sat out last year after spending the 2010 fall semester on the Kansas State team. What the pair lacks in size they make up for in work ethic and team-first attitude, finding ways to contribute to the cause every day.

The three freshmen who will vie for significant playing time are wing Buddy Hield and point guards Isaiah Cousins and Je'lon Hornbeak.

"Buddy, Isaiah and Je'lon are rangy and athletic and possess great enthusiasm, great passion and great energy," Kruger said. "They'll be a good complement to our returning guards and provide for a deep group."

Hield is a 6-3, 199-pounder from Freeport, Bahamas, who starred two years at Sunrise Christian Academy outside of Wichita, Kan. The four-star recruit was ranked 86th nationally by Rivals.com after averaging 22.7 points on .491 shooting in 21.0 minutes a game as a senior. Over the season's final five games, Hield averaged 29.8 points and shot .478 (22-for-46) from 3-point range.

"Buddy has great energy and passion," Kruger said. "He'll run the floor, score in a lot of different ways and will be attacking all the time. He's got a lot of confidence, which is good to see."

Cousins hails from Mount Vernon, N.Y., and attended the same high school as OU assistant coach Lew Hill. At 6-3 and 182 pounds, the long and active Cousins is a slasher who can play on or off the ball. New York's Section 1 "Mr. Basketball" as a senior, he averaged 15.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game to lead Mount Vernon High School to its second straight state championship.

Said Kruger, "Isaiah brings good size to the point, attacks all the time and is very aggressive in the open floor. He's very, very competitive, is used to winning and battles like crazy every day."

Hornbeak, like Cousins, has experience at both the point and 2-guard spots. The deceivingly strong 6-3, 180-pound product of Arlington, Texas, is used to winning, having captured the last two state titles with Grace Prep Academy. Those squads combined for a 57-10 record. A four-star recruit by Rivals.com who was rated No. 102 nationally, Hornbeak averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists his senior year for the talent-heavy Lions.

"Je'lon's a very solid guy, plays at a good pace and is very competitive," Kruger said. "He makes good basketball plays and understands the game. He comes from a winning high school program and really competes. He's got a very bright future."

Big 12's leading returning rebounder Romero Osby

FRONTCOURT
C.J. Cole (6-6, 225, Fr., Forward)
Steve Noworyta (6-7, 200, Fr., Forward)
Ryan Spangler (6-8, 227, So., Forward)

Much like the backcourt, the Sooners' frontline packs plenty of returning firepower. OU welcomes back three seniors -- two of whom started every game last year -- and a junior. They'll be joined by four fresh faces.

Honorable mention All-Big 12 selection Romero Osby is the conference's leading returning rebounder and OU's second-leading returning scorer. The senior started every game in his first season as a Sooner, averaging 12.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shot per contest. The 6-8, 232-pound Mississippi State transfer posted a team-high seven double-doubles and led OU with 34 dunks and 16 charges taken.

Osby was especially effective down the stretch last year, averaging 16.6 points on .569 field goal shooting over the final five outings. Kruger is a big fan of Osby's leadership qualities and dedication to the game.

"Romero's been a terrific worker since day one, an outstanding leader," said the head coach. "He's very passionate about his team and seeing his team do as well as possible."

Fellow senior forward Andrew Fitzgerald has started every game the last two seasons, and last year averaged 12.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. Like Osby, the 6-8, 238-pounder can score around the basket or consistently from mid-range. He needs just 97 points to become the 38th Sooner to reach the 1,000 mark all-time.

"Similar to Romero, Andrew is mostly concerned about his team," Kruger said about Fitzgerald, who was an honorable mention All-Big 12 pick two year ago as a sophomore. "He's a very good offensive scorer and has really worked hard on his conditioning and will have a terrific senior season."

Tyler Neal, a 6-7, 229-pound forward is back as a key reserve. The junior, who boasts excellent leaping ability and shoots well from the perimeter for his size, averaged 4.0 points and 2.5 rebounds last year in 13.1 minutes a game. Kruger likes how the Oklahoma City native can affect a game in a variety of ways.

"Tyler brings versatility and can play both the power forward spot and on the perimeter. He shot the ball well at times last year and we're working to improve that consistency."

Also returning is senior center Casey Arent, the team's tallest player. At 6-10 and 223 pounds, the junior college product saw action in 24 games off the bench for OU last season and averaged 1.2 points and 1.8 rebounds, playing mostly on the block on offense.

"Casey's a big guy who gives us some needed size on the interior," Kruger said. "He'll play some valuable minutes in that low post area."

Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Amath M'Baye

New to the frontcourt, transfer Amath M'Baye is expected to impact the Sooners and the Big 12 in a big way. Voted Preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year by the league's head coaches, the 6-9, 208-pound junior from Bordeaux, France, boasts supreme athletic ability and a diverse skillset.

M'Baye practiced with OU last year after transferring from Wyoming, where he played as a freshman and sophomore. In his final season with the Cowboys in 2010-11, he started all 31 games and averaged 12.0 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds. In addition to his ability on both ends of the court, M'Baye brings great personality and energy to the squad.

"Amath's a really good player," Kruger said. "He's a guy who can provide some versatility - play along the perimeter and play a little on the inside. He's very good going to the boards, runs the floor well and can score in a lot of different ways. Most importantly, he's all about the team and wants to do whatever he can to help his squad be effective."

Another passionate newcomer who figures to play a key role up front this year is junior college transfer D.J. Bennett. The 6-8, 210-pound forward is expected to provide needed interior defensive presence. The gifted shot-blocker boasts a 7-foot-4 wingspan as well as excellent timing. Bennett also gets up the floor extremely well and can score around the basket, especially on put-backs.

"D.J.'s a long, athletic inside player who's more advanced defensively in terms of blocking shots, rebounding and running the floor," Kruger said. "He's able to do some things offensively but is not a back-to-the-bucket type of scorer as much as just a blue-collar worker down there who brings great energy and athletic ability."

Also new to the squad this year are freshman walk-on forwards C.J. Cole and Steve Noworyta. The 6-6, 225-pound Cole was a three-time all-state selection in Oklahoma and averaged 21.6 points and a state-leading 16.6 rebounds per game as a senior at Sperry High School. Noworyta, from Hainesport, N.J., averaged 9.1 points and 12.0 boards a game last year for Holy Cross High School. Both bring great energy and intensity, and a positive attitude to the squad.

A name to remember for the future is Ryan Spangler. A 6-8, 227-pound former superstar at Blanchard High School near Norman, Spangler played as a freshman last year at Gonzaga before deciding to transfer to OU. He averaged 2.5 points on .561 field goal shooting and added 2.4 rebounds in 6.6 minutes a game. The physical post player also has the ability to make shots from the perimeter and is expected to be a big part of the Sooners' plans after sitting out this season.

"Ryan's a terrific addition because of his passion to be a Sooner," Kruger said. "He grew up right here in the Norman area and has a terrific attitude about working hard and giving great effort on both ends of the floor. He has a good nose for the ball on the boards and will be a good shooter. We're excited about the next four years with him."

WRAPPING UP
With the appeal of bright lights and screaming fans, it's no secret that players live for game days. But it's when practice and preparation become enjoyable that something special can begin to unfold. That seems to be where the Sooners find themselves. Kruger, who is starting his 27th year as a collegiate head coach, couldn't be more pleased about his players' approach.

"Being in the gym and enjoying being there is a huge part of having a good team," he said. "We have a lot of guys who love being in the gym. They're in there on their own a lot, as much as any team we've ever had. When four or five guys start investing like that, other guys follow their lead."

After three straight years of not participating in the postseason, OU appears to finally have the pieces in place to get back to its winning ways. And talent is just part of the equation.

"Our guys bring a great amount of passion and great anticipation about what lies ahead," said Kruger, who is the lone active coach to guide at least four schools to NCAA Tournament wins. "They love being here, they love playing, they loving working, they're quality individuals and they love being Sooners. Guys want to be here, want to represent well. That's been a common theme throughout the squad.

"These guys are going to work hard and earn the fans' interest," Kruger continued. "This team is excited about the challenge ahead and feels like -- and should feel like -- it can compete with others in the Big 12 and battle for a top spot."

If there's a direct correlation between passion and wins, then the Sooners are in store for a fun season.